True perspective: A look at the special bonds between college football players and parents in the military
As a military dad, Dennis Stribling missed his share of memories. Christmases, birthdays, undefeated high school football seasons—all belong on a list of events he wishes he could have witnessed. He would have loved to see his son, Channing, now a junior defensive back for Michigan, roll through his senior year at Butler (N.C.) High, leading the Bulldogs to a perfect season and a Class 4AA state championship. But when your job pulls you to an army base somewhere around the world at a moment's notice, you don't have time to lament missing out.
Johnnie Jefferson, Sr. can relate. An army captain and communications officer, he missed all of his son Johnny Jr.'s first year at Baylor, when the 5' 10", 210-pound running back redshirted for the Bears in 2013. Deployed to Kuwait that season, Johnnie Sr. kept in touch through phone calls and Skype sessions, asking Junior for details on Baylor's run to the Fiesta Bowl and how he passed the time during games. (Answer: "Hype up the crowd," Johnny Jr. says, which sometimes included building a cheerleader-like pyramid on the sideline with other redshirts.)
Johnnie Sr. saw one game in 2014, the Bears' home opener against SMU, in which Johnny Jr. carried 12 times for 57 yards as part of a 45–0 blowout win. Johnnie Sr. says there "might have been a tear or two" when Junior got his first college snaps. He was overcome with emotion at his oldest boy's accomplishments, and the fact that this time he got to see it up close.
"It's surreal to go to games and see all these people yelling for him, people who have watched this from the beginning," Johnnie Sr. says. "At first, I almost feel a little jealous, because it's like they had a part of him that I didn't. But then being a proud dad takes over and it's just like, 'Wow, this is actually him, my son, he's actually doing these things.'" Two days after that game, Johnnie Sr. loaded up his car and drove 16 hours to Fort Gordon, Ga., for six months of specialized training. He missed the rest of the regular season.
Across the country, thousands of military parents understand the agony of missing out. Many go through long deployments in which their only contact to family comes via phone calls and FaceTime, the occasional letter or care package. For a handful of fathers, most of whom haven't met, the armed forces and football tie together in a unique way: Yes, they're away for some of their kids' biggest games, but they have stadiums full of fans looking out for their boys. On Veteran's Day, those boys have an even greater appreciation for the men they look up to, the things they gave up and the joy that comes from seeing dad in the stands.
For Channing Stribling, "normal" is a relative term. With two parents in the army—his mother, Major Sonja Stribling, retired last year and his father, Chief Warrant Officer Dennis Stribling, is currently stationed in Fort Bragg, N.C.—he learned how to make and leave new friends quickly. A junior cornerback who has recorded 12 tackles and one interception this season, Channing was born in Colorado, lived briefly in Mannheim, Germany, and Honolulu and went to four different schools before settling in at Butler High in Matthews, N.C.
"My version of normal means not having them around," Channing says. He built a callus around part of his heart, roughing the edges so it didn't hurt as badly every time he had to say goodbye. He got so used to this reality that major events—like when his mom left for Kuwait when he was in sixth grade and came back 18 months later to find her oldest son had sprouted up taller than her—barely registered.
Just weeks after Dennis returned from his deployment to Korea, which forced him to miss Channing's entire senior season, his mom was sent overseas, missing his first year at Michigan. His father didn't shake the hand of his college coach—then Brady Hoke—until December 2013, when Michigan played Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., and Dennis drove over from his base in El Paso, Texas. Still, Channing harbors no resentment, grateful for the sacrifices his parents made for their family and country.
For Channing, football served as a welcome distraction—and provided him with a built-in friend group. Early on, he didn't think much about the dangers his parents faced during their service. But when he was 13 and heard them explain to his 8-year-old brother Mahari that "Mommy and Daddy are helping the Hulk and Spider-Man get the bad guys across the ocean," he started to understand they might be sugarcoating what was really happening. Years later, he finally knew why his father gave so many vague, "It's been an O.K. day, it's been a rough day for the unit," answers when asked about how things were going over there.
Instead of worrying Channing with stories of on-base activities, Dennis and Sonja peppered Channing with questions about his new teammates and games. Multiple athletes in military families say the key to avoiding stress is, to a certain extent, not asking. Ignorance really can be bliss.
Take Josh Holsey. A senior defensive back at Auburn, he is the son of Chief Warrant Officer Johnathon Holsey, who was deployed in Iraq. "As long as we're talking, I know he's safe," Josh says. "When I call and he answers, when he calls just to check on me, I know it's good. But if we go a period without talking …"
Josh has reason to fret: In 2004, his dad was working as a senior resource technician when a roadside bomb hit his convoy during a "routine" mission. As a result of that explosion, Holsey's left leg was amputated from the knee down. Johnathon delivered the news in a phone call Josh won't soon forget.
On Veteran's Day, players from military families take extra time to recognize all that their parents have done. For years, Iowa senior linebacker Travis Perry let the day come and go without giving it a second thought. But after his father, Russ, a colonel and pilot in the Iowa National Guard, spent five months in Kandahar, Afghanistan, last year, he now has a different outlook. "Obviously I didn't experience it firsthand, but just listening to him talk, tell stories about what it was like over there, it puts a lot of things in perspective," Travis says. "It makes you think when you're complaining about practice."
A devastating injury can sideline even the toughest competitors. That isn't the case with Johnathon Holsey, though, who has a prosthetic and competes regularly in military 5K races (while decked out in Auburn gear). "If there's a good thing about the amputation, it's that they did it once I was back in the states," Johnathon says. "So, for my kids, I came back the same way I left, and I think that was important for them, visually. In the hospital waiting room, before the amputation, they knew what was about to happen."
Johnathon knew his sons paid close attention to everything, so he made sure to recognize big moments when they came and celebrated them accordingly. Work and duty to one's country are important, but family comes before everything else. Stationed in Belgium for most of Josh's senior year of high school, Johnathon made it a point to be home for two major events: Signing Day and graduation. In anticipation of Josh playing his true freshman season at Auburn, Johnathon saved up his leave days, then strategically planned trips to Georgia so he could attend at least three Tigers' games before heading back overseas. Going from Belgium to Atlanta takes 14 hours, the type of trip, Johnathon jokes, only an SEC fan would make.
He also communicated, sometimes solely through actions, that giving up wasn't allowed in the Holsey family. Josh recently suffered his second ACL tear, which will sideline him for the rest of the season. Johnathon has encouraged his son to dive full-bore into rehab with a positive attitude. In the army, he explains, there is no time for negative thoughts, because that's usually when you're caught off guard and things go wrong. He chooses to approach each day with enthusiasm and optimism, and encourages his boys (Josh's brother, Brandon Ponder, is 25) to do the same. Once healthy, Josh can count on Johnathon challenging him to some sort of physical competition. As Johnathon points out, military parents are probably the only ones who are in equally good shape as their football-playing sons. They have no problem reminding the kids of that.
"I can drop and do push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups," Johnathon says. "We did a 5K run in Georgia for breast cancer [research] last year and we crossed the line together. But if we had raced I'd have easily beat him, even though he doesn't like to believe that."
As a whole, military families are a stubborn bunch. Dennis Stribling, an Alabama fan since birth who fully converted to a Michigan Man once Channing enrolled in Ann Arbor, played shooting guard at Jefferson Davis Community College, in Brewton, Ala., so he has an idea of the dedication required in big-time college athletics. And he believes military kids have an inherent advantage. Growing up around a bunch of alpha males and females, he says, can't help but breed a deep competitive fire, a trait military parents are happy to pass on to their children. When he hears from former coworkers that they aren't surprised by Channing's success, Dennis stands a little taller.
With the Wolverines' resurgence in the college football world this season, Dennis and Channing have been overwhelmed by Facebook messages from Channing's former babysitters and longtime military personnel who remember him. It serves as an immense source of pride, but deep down, it breaks his heart, too.
"It can be very difficult, because he's living out his dream and I would love to be part of it as much as possible," says Dennis, who once told Channing he would pay for his first year at Alabama if Channing wanted to walk on for the Crimson Tide. "I try to talk with him two or three times a week if I'm stateside and before games, we've been doing this since he was in high school, I talk to him and settle him down a little bit, remind him that the game and moment is not too big. He's supposed to do this."
He will also share a startling truth with Channing. Dennis watched a lot of young men Channing's age get zipped into body bags when he was in Iraq, 18- and 19-year-olds whose lives were just beginning. They never had a chance to get married, have children or play college football. So take advantage of every day.
When they're overseas, parents have to get creative in order to track their sons and their football teams. Johnnie Jefferson, Sr., read Baylor message boards, checked Twitter and counted on emails and phone calls from Bears offensive coordinator Kendal Briles to keep him updated. While in Kuwait during Johnny's redshirt season, Johnnie Sr. converted his whole company to Baylor fans, convincing everyone to stay up until 2 or 3 a.m. to watch games on a TV hooked up in the dining hall.
Dennis Stribling hit refresh on every recruiting website he could find while stationed in Korea, devouring Channing's online highlight reels. Despite a 15-hour time difference he watched live, grainy streams of high school games and followed play-by-play updates when no video was available. It wasn't nearly as good as being there in person, but at least he felt some distant connection.
The worst part, Johnathon Holsey says, comes when he hears after the fact that he didn't see a big tackle or key catch. "You work so hard to schedule to be there and the game you miss, they get the interception," he says. "You pick up your phone and people have been texting you for days, telling you how cool it was."
Military parents live in a constant push-pull of pride and guilt. Sometimes, they're just as worried about their child as their child is about them. This fall, when Josh tore his ACL in a win over Jacksonville State on Sept. 12, Johnathon's phone and email buzzed with messages. Now stationed in Fort Raleigh, Kan., Johnathon wanted to see and evaluate the injury for himself, forced instead to parse information from rushed texts until he could watch a clip of the play. He hated that he couldn't immediately be there for Josh, showering him with words of encouragement and affection.
At least this time, he could get close quickly; when Josh tore his ACL in 2013, Johnathon was still in Belgium and estimates he was on FaceTime with Josh's mom, Marilyn Davis, "once every 15 minutes" as doctors prepped for and performed Josh's surgery. Many college football parents dread hearing from rabid fans; military parents are thankful for it. Parents of Josh's teammates, as well as a few Auburn diehards, have been known to reach out and assure Johnathon that Josh is being cared for and make clear that if either of them needs anything, there is a group at Jordan-Hare Stadium willing and ready. Like many aspects of this arrangement, it offers comfort and acts as a gut punch: "Sometimes it feel like fans know more about my son's life than me."
You can't, and won't, see every moment, military parents say. But you can collect enough to pull you through the long, lonely days of deployment.
Russ Perry drew on nearly two decades of memories when he was gone, remembering back to all the years he coached his three sons in basketball and football growing up in Urbandale, Iowa. To stay connected while in Afghanistan, his first deployment in almost 40 years of military service, Perry had the Iowa football staff send him game DVDs. That he received them almost a full week after he knew the outcomes didn't matter; Travis, a junior in 2014, was finally getting significant time, and dad needed to watch. Travis notched 19 tackles, including 1 ½ for loss, last season. A lifelong Iowa fan—Russ says new and updated Hawkeyes basketball and football jerseys were often found under the Christmas tree—he has been able to enjoy the program's undefeated ride (9–0) in person this year.
"Travis and I talk about it all the time and I tell him, 'War definitely isn't something you want to go to," Russ says. "Whenever I see someone get riled up at officials, or read about coaches having to make 'difficult decisions,' it's like, are you kidding me? Difficult decisions are made when you're standing in a minefield."
If Travis complains about how hot a practice is going to be, Russ reminds him that in Afghanistan he worked with men who patrolled camp in blazing 115° sunshine, often dressed in full combat gear. "It might be hot at football," Russ will tell him, "but at least you don't have to worry about someone blowing your head off."
Above all else, Travis and other military children are just grateful for the times their families are home and safe. They make up a special type of fraternity, a group of kids reminded daily of what constitutes true perspective. And they know the value of teamwork, taught to them by parents whose lives depend on it.
"In combat, you don't fight for hatred of the enemy," Russ tells Travis. "You fight for the guys around you, your buddies. That applies to football, too."
It's a different type of battle, to be sure. One that means more with their parents in the stands to witness it.